Monday, November 2, 2020

1998 Topps All-Star Rookie Outfielder Ben Grieve


Many profiles of our next Topps All-Star Rookie want to know "What happened to Ben Grieve?" If you follow the trajectory of many phenoms / "can't miss" prospects, his story is probably a familiar one. Grieve had an MLB lineage (his father was a first round pick, too), to go along with a stellar prep career that had the scouts ready to fall all over themselves. Grieve backed up the hype in his rookie season with the A's - he set a franchise record for hits by a rookie, and made the MLB All-Star team en route to Rookie of the Year honors in the AL. Of course, that made him an ideal candidate for the Topps All-Star Rookie squad as well.

To give some perspective about how highly the A's thought of Grieve, he had more plate appearances that season than Rickey Henderson. Grieve's 41 doubles led the A's, as did his 168 base hits. Just 22 years old, Grieve was ready to take his place in Oakland A's history. 

The Oakland A's selected Grieve #2 Overall out of high school in Arlington, TX. He grew up with his father Tom Grieve as a 9 year veteran MLB pitcher and later coach and GM. Ben's older brother Tim was also a talented pitcher, and Ben even got the chance to face off against him in the minor leagues. The MLB connection included getting hitting instruction from the then Texas Rangers hitting coach Tom Robson while Ben was in high school. 

As prospects go, few were hotter than Grieve - he was the 1997 Minor League Player of the Year, have forced his way onto the MLB roster to finish the season. He slugged .610 with 24 homers in double A, then surpassed that with a SLG north of .700 in a handful of games in AAA Edmonton. He had already made an impression in 1996, hitting .356 for the season in Modesto. There was little doubt that Grieve was on his way to star status.

Despite the fact that Grieve's 1998 season was his only All-Star Appearance, his entire A's career was a success. Grieve follow up his Rookie of the Year campaign with a career high 28 homers. In 2000 he once again reached 40 doubles, this time with 27 homers, making it the highest slugging of his MLB career to date. He also topped 100 RBI for the first time, finishing the year with 104. That season marked his first appearance in post season play, where he struggled with a 2-17 with 7 strikeouts performance in the ALDS against the Yankees. Over the first 3 full seasons in the big leagues, Grieve was averaging 35 doubles, 25 homers, and over 90 RBI. 

Before the 2001 season began, Grieve was traded to Tampa in a wild three team deal that sent Johnny Damon to Oakland, Angel Berroa and Roberto Hernandez to Kansas City, along with several other players flipping between Oakland and KC. Grieve was the lone player coming to Tampa Bay, and they certainly thought they were getting a steal. It's about this time when people started the "what happened to Ben Grieve" narratives, with his first season with Rays just 11 homers and a 100 point drop in his slugging percentage. After the trade, Grieve had gone from second banana behind Jason Giambi to top dog in Tampa. He was hitting 5th in the order after an older Fred McGriff and Greg Vaughn. He was making less contact in Tampa (certainly the roof in St. Pete was less inviting than California sun), setting a career high with 159 strikeouts. The positives? He still rattled off a pair of 30 double seasons, and his walk rate had improved considerably. Maybe the opposition was willing (and able) to pitch around Grieve now that he was the main focus of the lineup? 2003 added injury to insult, as a blood clot in his shoulder required surgery. He would play in just 55 games that year, his last in Tampa. 

He was entering a free agent season after the injury, and was left with fewer options than a former ROY would normally expect. He landed in Milwaukee, where he was used in platoon situations for 108 games. He was on the move again the next year, taking a brief tour of the NL Central division. While the Pirates signed him initially, he would end up playing for the Cubs for a handful of games in 2004 and 2005. He moved to the south side after that, playing minor league ball for the White Sox for two more seasons. 

Do you have any Ben Grieve memories? I'd love to read them in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, November 1, 2020

I Love the 80s - 1982 Montreal Expos

This is a series of posts on a 1980's Frankenset. Each page features a different team, with 9 of my personal favorite cards from that year's team. You might find players repeated, you'll definitely see brands repeated, but hopefully you'll agree that there are some interesting selections from the 1980s!

The Expos clinched their first ever Playoff berth in 1981, despite the team's manager Dick Williams being fired in September by the front office with the team just a game and a half behind the Cardinals in the standings. They would lose 3 of the first 5 games under new skipper Jim Fanning, but squeaked out a narrow half game lead over the Cardinals by the end of the second half. They would go on to beat the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies in the Divisional round, but fell in 5 games to the Dodgers in the NLCS. The franchise would not return to the post season until after the team moved to Washington, D.C.

Despite missing the playoffs in 1982, the Expos were still a very good team, led by a trio of Hall of Famers. Carter, Dawson, and Raines were joined by fellow Expos Al Oliver and ace pitcher Steve Rogers in the All-Star Game. It was hosted for the first time outside of the United States and the only time in Montreal. Rogers pitched well and recorded the win. Ultimately the team finished third in the standings, behind the Cardinals and Phillies in the NL East. Despite the talented trio and more young players on the way, the team never finished higher than 3rd for the rest of the 80s. 

The Cards:

Donruss #114 Gary Carter - By 1982, "The Kid" was a veteran and a team leader. He was just about midway through a run of 10 consecutive All-Star appearances, and took home his 3rd straight Gold Glove and 2nd Silver Slugger award. He paced the Expos with 29 homers, and led the NL in WAR with 8.6 for the season. His final season in Montreal, 1984, he led the NL in RBI, won his 2nd All-Star MVP award, and posted a career high 175 hits. He'd go on to post season glory following a trade to the Mets, winning the World Series in 1986. Carter was elected to the Hall of Fame in his 6th year of eligibility. His 2,056 games caught ranks 4th All-Time in MLB history.

O-Pee-Chee #379 Andre Dawson - I had to break out the OPC for the Canadian teams! Andre, just like Gary, was celebrating 1982 with his 3rd Gold Glove and had appeared in his 2nd of 8 All-Star games. Dawson had the 2nd Highest WAR in the NL just behind Carter, with 7.9 wins above replacement. He played a sterling center field, including 7 outfield assists that year. He led the NL twice in that category from Center Field. He was the 1977 Rookie of the Year in the NL, thanks to displaying skills at all phases of the game. Before injuries sapped his speed, Dawson would average more than 30 steals and nearly 25 homers a year in his prime. He showed his worth again in his first year in Chicago, winning the MVP in the NL by virtue of leading the league in Homers (49) and RBI (137). He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his 9th year of eligibility, with voters citing his lower career totals compared to his healthier peers as a stumbling block. His speed, power, and grace on the field would not be denied!

Topps #3 Tim Raines - While Rickey was dominating the AL on the bases and leading off year after year, it was Tim Raines showing many of the same skills in Montreal. In 1981, Raines had a triple slash of .304/.391/.438 and stole 71 bases in just 88 games (remember, this was a strike shortened season, and Raines was a mid-year call-up!)! Just like his HOF brothers-in-arms, Raines was embarking on a string of numerous All-Star appearances in 1982. It would be his 2nd of 7 straight mid-summer classics. He led the NL in runs scored twice, won a batting title (and OBP title) in 1986, and was the top base stealer in the NL for 4 straight years starting in his rookie campaign. He'd steal at least 10 bases every year for 15 consecutive seasons. He ranks 5th All-Time in the category, with 808 career steals. Raines would have to wait the maximum period of 10 years on the HOF ballot before his induction - he never finished higher than 5th in MVP balloting, didn't have post season success in his prime (though he was a key piece of the 1996 and 98 Yankees teams), and didn't hit for power or reach the 3,000 hit milestone. His final year of eligibility included a successful campaign on behalf of OBP, stolen base %, and the value of a player who rarely got himself out. 

Topps #131 Stan Bahnsen - The 1968 AL Rookie of the year was coming to the end of long and winding road in the big leagues, which included a 20 win season followed by a 20 loss season, and 5 different franchises. 1981 would be his last of 5 seasons in Montreal. He came to the team mid way through 1977 from Oakland, and spent the rest of the year as a member of the starting rotation. He converted to the bullpen in 1978, and had several successful years in that role for the Expos. In 1981, Bahnsen would make his first post season appearance after 15 MLB seasons. He faced 5 batters and retired 4 of them in relief in the NLDS against the Phillies. Like many pitchers to have his staying power, Bahnsen learned how to pitch rather than just throw, as evidenced by the evolution of his nicknames. When he arrived in Yankee pinstripes, he was called "Bahnsen Burner" for his high 90s fastball. Towards the end of his career, he became known as "Stanley Struggle" for getting himself into and then out of jams through wits and guile. He went on to pitch in the Senior League, then in the Netherlands (the first former MLB player to do so).

Fleer #196 Brad Mills - One of the more iconic cards in the 1982 Fleer set, Mills is blowing a big bubble in the dugout. Mills was a rarely used utility infielder for the Expos, playing in 106 total games from 1980 through 1983, giving him plenty of time to work on his chewing gum skills. 1980 was the same year that Mills started professional baseball, going from single A up to the big league club that year. He would play in AAA for several seasons after his last MLB game in 1983. Following an injury that ended his playing career, Mills became a coach and then manager. He led the PCL Colorado Springs Sky Sox to a pennant in 1995, and later managed the Houston Astros for 2 and a half seasons. He's been a close confidant and bench coach in recent years of Cleveland skipper Terry Francona, though Mills sat out during the 2020 season to limit his exposure to the Coronavirus.

Donruss #650 Felipe Alou - Alou joined the Expos organization briefly as a player in 1973, then as a batting coach following his playing career in 1976. Alou would work his way up the ranks with the Expos, and stuck with the franchise even though he was offered a chance to manage the San Francisco Giants in 1985. He would get his chance in Montreal in 1992, and would be the skipper for arguably the best team in Franchise history in 1994. Though the strike ended the season prematurely, the Expos had their lone 1st place finish in Montreal that year. The strike eliminated the chance for the team to play in the post season, and they would not make it back under Alou, who remained the manager until 2001. He retired but was given another shot in San Francisco and led the Giants to a 100 win season in his first year with the club. After his final year as manager in 2003, he continued to work with the club as an instructor and as special assistant to the general manager. 

Topps Traded #7T Tim Blackwell -  Sporting one of the best moustaches of the 1980s, Tim Blackwell was a talented reserve catcher for several teams. He also had a brief period of time as the primary receiver for the Chicago Cubs, posting career highs across the board in 1980. He was drafted in 1970 by the Red Sox, and worked his way into a solid and dependable reserve role while learning the finer points of the game. This would come in handy in his next career choice, managing several minor league teams across all levels. He led the 1991 Columbia Mets and the 1993 Saint Paul Saints to league titles, and finished in 1st place 2 other times. 1982 was his first year in Montreal, and backing up Gary Carter meant not much playing time. He did manage to strikeout against Nolan Ryan in 1983, allowing Ryan to tie Walter Johnson's then record. Ryan would start his own record with the next batter, striking out Brad Mills for #3,509.

O-Pee-Chee #191 Tim Wallach - Like many Montreal Expos, Wallach was under the radar for much of his career. A first round pick in 1979 out of Cal State Fullerton, Wallach played 13 seasons for the Expos, amassing over 1,600 hits and driving in over 900 runs for the team north of the border. He wasn't totally ignored, however, winning 3 gold gloves and appearing on 5 All-Star rosters in his Expos career. His best season was 1987, when he finished 4th in the MVP race behind his former teammate Andre Dawson. That year he led the NL in Doubles while hitting a career high .298 and driving 123 runs. His output may have been directly tied to Dawson's absence in the heart of the Expos order, but he rose to the challenge. He would return to California to close out his career in Dodger blue and a brief stop with the Angels sandwiched between two stints in Chavez Ravine. His 2,054 games played at 3rd base ranks 11th All-Time at the position. He became a coach after his playing career ended and has followed Don Mattingly from the Dodgers to the Marlins as a bench coach. He opted to leave the Marlins for the 2020 season to seek a job in baseball closer to his California home. His son Chad currently plays for the Marlins. 

Fleer #194 Bill Lee - "The Spaceman" was spotted in Canada following a 1979 trade. The crafty and kooky lefty was the team's most successful starter that year, going 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA, his most victories since his heyday with the Red Sox in 1973-74-75. Lee would convert to bullpen duty and showed promise in that role as well, with an excellent run in 1981, posting a 2.94 ERA over 88 innings for the post season bound Expos. His time in Montreal (and his MLB career) came to an abrupt end in 1982 after just 7 games. Lee walked out (in full uniform) in protest for the release of Rodney Scott on May 5, 1982. Scott was one of Lee's best friends on the team, and Lee felt that manager Jim Fanning was exercising a personal grudge against Scott rather than solely a baseball decision. Following his MLB playing career, Lee wrote his (first) autobiography, then continued to pitch semi-professionally for a variety of teams and leagues. At age 65 in 2012, he pitched a complete game for a team in San Rafael, CA.

What is your favorite card of a Montreal Expo from 1982? Doesn't have to be one of these...

Thanks for reading!